California Department of Education skewers Tehachapi Unified School District’s special education department in review

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Undergraduate education is broken. Solutions start with faculty and rigor.


Georgetown University (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

In two months, another crop of new high school graduates will head off to college. They will all depart the campuses at some point, but too many will leave without a degree.

Fewer than 40 percent of students enrolling for the first time at a four-year college actually graduate in four years. Even allowing an extra two years for financial challenges or new majors, fewer than two-thirds graduate within six years.

As the baby boomer generation leaves the workforce, the United States risks having successive generations less educated than the ones that preceded them for the first time unless we improve undergraduate education. Here are three ideas to get us started: 

Instead of focusing on tenure, focus on full-time faculty. We need to separate the debates about the future of tenure and its guarantee of lifetime employment from the growing use of part-time, adjunct faculty on campuses.

Only about one-third of college professors are tenured or on the pathway to tenure. That’s the statistic often used by faculty members who worry tenure is under threat as higher education leaders look to cut costs.

But focusing just on the tenure status of faculty is a mistake if we’re looking to cut college costs and improve undergraduate education. Not all faculty, whether tenured or not, are created equal in terms of costs. One recent study found that the increases in faculty salaries have been concentrated among large research universities and among a subset of academic departments.

“Within departments the highest-paid faculty teach fewer undergraduates and fewer undergraduate courses than their lower-paid colleagues,” wrote the study’s authors, Paul Courant of the University of Michigan and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia.

Faculty salaries, they concluded, “are determined principally by research output and associated reputation.”

Indeed, there is a growing separation between faculty who teach and faculty who research at too many colleges, especially large research universities that enroll the largest number of undergraduate students.

Among those professors who mostly teach, too many are part-timers. Of the faculty members who are not on a track to earn tenure, almost half work part-time.

Full-time professors are more effective in the classroom and as mentors to students whether they have tenure or not, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University, noted in his new book, “Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students.” Berlinerblau maintains that the more prestigious the school, the less likely its most valued professors will engage with undergraduates.

On campus tours, prospective students and their parents rarely ask about faculty or how much time professors spend on research compared to teaching and advising undergraduates. Berlinerblau suggests families do their research by combing the college’s web pages to look at how many full-time professors your major’s department has and how many courses are taught by full-timers.

“The dreamier the school,” Berlinerblau writes, “the less likely it promotes a culture that emphasizes educating 18- to 24-year-olds. The less likely its distinguished faculty view teaching as the life’s calling that it surely is.”

In a recent column, I suggested that colleges adopt a recommendation from a former university president to put a cap on tenure—perhaps 30 years, followed by yearly contracts. The response from faculty was swift. The American Association of University Professors called it “a truly awful idea.” Others said that the cost of ever more administrators on campuses, not faculty members, is the real reason tuition prices keep rising.

Instead of fighting to get more professors on the tenure track, faculty advocates should focus on getting more full-time professors in classrooms, whether they have tenure or not.

Make the undergraduate degree more rigorous. One byproduct of the increased use of part-time adjuncts in college classrooms is that students have come to regard professors as yet another service provider. Adjuncts, hired by the semester, depend on positive student evaluations at the end of the term to get their contracts renewed. One way to ensure a good evaluation is to be an easy grader.

So the classroom has become one giant game of favor exchanges between students and professors. When they each play their parts, everyone comes out a winner. Students receive better grades and adjuncts keep their job year after year or spend less time dealing with complaints about bad grades.

A seminal study in 2011 that resulted in the book “Academically Adrift” found that one-third of college students made no gains in their writing, complex reasoning, or critical-thinking skills after four years of college. “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students,” wrote authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. For many undergraduates, they wrote, “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent.”

The main reason for this, the researchers found, was a lack of rigor. Through surveys they learned that students spent about twelve hours a week studying on average, much of that time in groups. Most didn’t take courses that required them to read more than 40 pages a week or write more than 20 pages over an entire semester.

“You can’t assume that in sending off a student to a typical college that they’re going to get a rigorous education,” Arum later told me.

Design new pathways through the undergraduate degree. As the cost of college has spiraled upward, parents and students have focused more than ever on employment preparation and graduating on time. Intellectual discovery and exploration are no longer a priority, unfortunately. It’s too expensive.

To reduce the tension between the vocational training employers demand and the traditional liberal-arts education, the bachelor’s degree should be split into two parts: a one-year program of general education, followed by separate programs of varying lengths, depending on the needs of a given academic field. So after that first year, the credential for a computer-science major might take three years, but history or English majors might take just one, given that everyone is going to need further education throughout their lifetimes anyway.

The requirements for a bachelor’s degree already vary by major. What’s more, students are already patching together their own versions of a bachelor’s degree: one-third transfer to another college at least once before earning a diploma.

Concerns about the state of teaching led the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2015 to fund the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. The panel has started to issue studies from its work and its final report is expected next year. Its recommendations and the work some colleges are already undertaking to reform undergraduate education can’t come quickly enough.

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Can you spell ‘Tchoupitoulas’? Take a New Orleans street names …

Nothing brings out the competitive spirit of New Orleanians like a test of how well they know their city. Dozens of teams gathered for a street name spelling bee at Second Line Brewing Friday (June 23). 

How hard was it? The top possible score was 51. The two winning teams scored 46. 

Now you can try a cut-down version of the quiz, which was originally created by the New Orleans Public Library as part of its summer reading challenge. 

Post your scores in the comments. If you’re sure you know New Orleans but just can’t spell, the library is holding a geography bee Tuesday. 

Evaluation finds Massena Central School special education understaffed, but doing a good job

By ANDY GARDNER

MASSENA — A recent evaluation found that the Massena Central special education program is doing a good job with the students who need it, but it’s understaffed, according to Superintendent Pat Brady.

He said a company called Futures Education discussed their findings with the Board of Education on Thursday.

“They found the district has a good culture around our special education program to support students, the general education teacher and special education teachers are for the most part collaborating well … and do a good job educating parents,” Brady said. “They also concluded in their, and they had examined many school across the state as well as across the country … they determined our program is understaffed at a time when numbers of students identified as needing special education is on the rise.

“They also felt we need to continue to improve upon our response to intervention program … designed to provide support to students in ELA and math beginning in the primary graders. Part of that effort is to lower the number of students being referred to special education … work to build up their skills … they would have what they need already.”

Brady said the board wrote in two additional special education positions in the 2017-18 budget, but they’re having trouble hiring them.

“Most schools in the North Country and throughout much of the state are finding it difficult to hire special education teachers because they are in limited supply. We are in fact looking for two at this point,” Brady said.

He said the board welcomed the Futures Education report.

“When you have a major program like this, it’s important we examine it from time to time and when you bring in an outside perspective of people who have been in the field as special education teachers, directors of special education, superintendents … I think it was a valuable exercise and we will use their recommendations as we set up our goals over the next couple of years,” he said. “Our special education program impacts a fifth of our students, and approximately one fifth of our school budget.”

The report can be read at goo.gl/RF9WV9

A presentation shown at the June 15 board meeting is at goo.gl/RH4DLY.

 

In California push to help students with dyslexia, LA schools take a first step

Courtesy of Gabriella Barbosa

June 25, 2017
1 Comment

The Los Angeles Unified school board jumped ahead of a new state law last week and instructed the school district to immediately create a plan to train teachers on the leading learning disability in California:, a reading impairment known as dyslexia.

The demand by the board of the second-largest school district in the U.S. was hailed by parent advocates as a signal that districts across the state, and potentially the nation, might finally provide interventions that help students with dyslexia learn to read. Effective interventions are available, but most school districts nationwide do not provide them widely, citing the cost of training, according to advocates for students with disabilities.

“We know what works,” said Pamela Cohen, a teacher in the district and a member of Decoding Dyslexia California, a parent advocacy group that has led state and national efforts to improve services. “It’s time to put the pedal to the metal.” She described her child’s anguish at not being able to learn to read and her own frustration at not being able to get help from teachers or school specialists.

Instead, her son received private tutoring for dyslexia starting in 2nd grade — $90 an hour, twice a week, for four years — because Los Angeles Unified did not provide assistance, she said. Few families can afford to hire an outside specialist. “This is a civil rights issue to me,” Cohen said. “We know that thousands of families in LAUSD cannot and should not have to pay out of their pockets so their children can learn to read.”

Dyslexia is estimated to affect roughly 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the International Dyslexia Association — which would mean about 1 million children in California schools. Once known as “word blindness,” dyslexia is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to “sound out” words by matching letters with sounds. Brain imagery has shown that people with dyslexia process word identification differently. The disability is unrelated to intelligence.

The board gave Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King 90 days to return with an action plan to provide staff and teacher training on the warning signs of dyslexia, interventions proven by research to be effective and appropriate assessments for identifying dyslexia. School board member Scott Schmerelson, who co-sponsored the resolution with board member Ref Rodriguez, said that increasing early identification and effective intervention will be “life-changing” for students with dyslexia and their families.

Pressure on school districts in California to do more to help students with dyslexia increased with the passage of a 2015 law, Assembly Bill 1369, authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley. The law called for the California Department of Education to release new guidance for dyslexia services before the start of the 2017-18 school year — and the department has urged districts not to wait for the guidance to get started. In a traveling presentation to special education administrators around the state, the department said it is letting them know that both general education and special education departments need to make changes in how reading is taught.

“It needs to be about effective literacy instruction for all students, modified instruction for some and specifically targeted instruction for students with intensive reading needs, such as dyslexia,” the department said in a summary of its presentations to county offices of education.

And school districts are watching a class action lawsuit filed in May that charges the Berkeley Unified School District with not providing adequate diagnoses or interventions for students with dyslexia. Deborah Jacobson of Jacobson Education Law, who filed the lawsuit with the Disability Rights Defense Education Fund and the Goodwin law firm, said, “This is potentially an entire population of children who will struggle needlessly and possibly enter society functionally illiterate, no matter how intelligent, driven and capable they are.”

“I think what happens in L.A. Unified could be a model for other parts of the state and what happens in California could be a model for other states,” said Richard Wagner, associate director of the National Institute of Health’s Florida Center for Reading Research and a member of the California Department of Education’s Dyslexia Work Group, which was created to help form the new program guidelines.

L.A. Unified’s plan is being developed by Beth Kauffman, associate superintendent for the division of special education, and Alison Towery, director of instructional operations. Asked how broadly the training will be spread, Kauffman said, “We certainly are going to train our resource teachers. We are probably going to have do some training of our general education teachers so they at least have awareness of what some of the signs are.”

Warning signs include “reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters on the page – will say ‘puppy’ instead of the written word ‘dog’ on an illustrated page with a dog shown,” according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia Creativity.

Kauffman pointed to the district’s Intensive Diagnostic Education Centers as a resource. Those centers house teachers trained in research-backed dyslexia interventions, most of them stemming from what’s known as the Orton-Gillingham approach, that explicitly teach students to identify and manipulate the sound of a letter or a group of letters, among other techniques.

“We’d like to take the skills they have and see how we can expand those out to our general education classrooms and our special education program,” Kauffman said. Members of Decoding Dyslexia California praised the centers, but said there were far too few of them and that interventions should be happening with students in kindergarten and 1st grade, not in middle school and high school. Center staff teach in 23 classrooms located in 10 elementary schools, 12 middle schools and 1 high school — out of more than 900 schools and 187 public charter schools in the district.

“It really is about the money,” Sherry Rubalcava, who retired after 37 years of work in Los Angeles Unified as a teacher and administrator, said about the lack of training in dyslexia interventions that work.

She tutors a 6th-grade student who is reading at a 2nd-grade level despite spending three years receiving special education services in the district, she said. “They are already offering an intervention, but that intervention is worthless,” she said.

“What they don’t realize is that you spend money to save money,” she said of the district. “They’re spending all this money on worthless interventions. If you gave children the right intervention, you wouldn’t have to do it as long.”

She ticked off other benefits for the district for helping students with dyslexia, including an increase in school reading test scores, a jump in the number of English learners who are able to move out of English learner status, and improvement in behavior and attendance. “When kids can’t read, who wants to be in school?” she asked.

Mara Wiesen, president of the Los Angeles branch of the International Dyslexia Association, said of the teacher training, “I would argue it is ultimately cost effective to do so.”

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  1. Lori 8 hours ago8 hours ago

    Excellent article summarizing the challenges of meeting the needs of our dyslexic students. Early identification appropriate interventions are game changers!

The price of special education: As autism rates surge, so does the …

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Region sees spike in IEPs


In most local school districts, the number of students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, has risen over the past decades, outpacing a smaller upward trend statewide.

This school year, 17.4 percent of Massachusetts students have IEPs — a personalized program for children determined to need special education services. The commonwealth’s percentage is consistently among the highest in the nation, though still well below 2016-17 numbers at some local school districts where more than over a fifth of students have IEPs.

In Fitchburg 23.5 percent of students have IEPs, up from 18.1 percent 10 years ago. In Leominster the number is 22 percent, up from 17.4 percent in the 2006-07 school year. Ayer Shirley and North Midddlesex school districts also came in just over the 20 percent mark this year.

The reasons for these increases are complex but relate to specifics of the student population, mental-health needs and differing district approaches, according to local officials and experts.

In some districts, like Leominster, the number of young students with mental-health needs has dramatically increased over the past roughly 15 years, according to Leominster Schools Special Education Director Ned Pratt.

“We’re getting more and more kids younger and younger who have severe mental-health issues,” he said. “I’m finishing my 35th year of education service. I’ve been a special ed director for over 20 years.

I’ve been an educational administrator for over 15. The acuity of needs, the level of sickness for so many of our younger kids in mental health is unbelievable.”

Some students on IEPs require only an in-class tutor, others benefit from a separate classroom environment, and some need to be placed outside of the district in other schools or residential facilities, he said.

The wide range of personalized solutions created through IEPs are reflective of the spectrum of student needs, from severe disabilities to ADHD diagnoses to language and physical disabilities.

“The IEP is really a bridge to allow students to access the general curriculum,” said Anne Howard, a professor of education at Fitchburg State University and board president of Boston nonprofit, Federation for Children with Special Needs.

According to Howard, the increase in student needs seen by Pratt is geographically widespread.

“You look at the number of kids with mental-health diagnoses, you look at the number of kids with autism diagnoses … it’s absolutely increased significantly,” she said.

Pratt has seen the incidents of students in first grade and lower being carried away from school in an ambulance for a mental-health issue increase from “once in a while” to commonplace, he said.

“Now you see it all the time,” he said.

Howard isn’t sure whether these increased numbers are a result of raised awareness, though changes in the environment and, for children with severe disabilities, improving neonatal medicine, could be contributors.

Pratt pegs the shift to concrete changes in behavior, not just awareness, he said. The opioid crisis may be affecting these young children, he contends.

Two other factors have likely driven up the percentage of IEPs in Leominster, he said.

The first is homelessness. Of the 6,047 students in the Leominster district, 288 are homeless, which Pratt said is above average. About 60 percent of these students have IEPs, he said.

The second may be an unexpected by-product of the campaign led by Mayor Dean Mazzarella and his daughter, Stephanie Madrigal, to make Leominster an autism friendly city, which Pratt said is a “great program.”

The effort hit local and national papers, bringing people to the city and school district.

“We had an influx of students coming into our district moving from not just the communities around us,” he said. “We had people from Tennessee. We had one family from Alaska who came to us specifically.”

In Fitchburg, Director of Pupil Services Roann Demanche said more students with IEPs moved into the district, particularly in the past year.

“Our classrooms for students with emotional impairment are full,” she said. 

Long term, Fitchburg has seen more group homes that house children under the custody of the Department of Children Families move into the area, she said.

Though not all children under the custody of the DCF have IEPs, it increases the probability she said.

While the guidelines for determining which students need IEPs and the options available are governed by federal law, how these guidelines are implemented from state to state and district to district vary, according to Howard.

“Massachusetts has had a history of really meeting the needs of students with disabilities in really a more extensive way than many states,” she said.

For example, the state mandates a faster timeline to make a finding than required by nationwide laws. State guidelines also vary from the national for children with autism, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Determining if a student needs an IEP is a multistep process, that consults teachers, district special education officials and parents or guardians, Pratt said. In some cases lawyers or advocates representing the parent, school principals and even the student are also involved in the decision-making process following a testing and evaluation period.

If the student is found to need special education, the team of decision-makers must determine what plan is “appropriate” and creates the “least restrictive environment” for the student.

The goal is to address the student’s needs while also keeping the student as involved in the school’s general population as possible, Pratt said.

Though most decisions are made in district without state intervention, the process follows specific nation and statewide guidelines, he said.

According to Howard, school funding, which varies widely from district to district, can have an impact on the programs available to students and how schools may use their resources.

“Some districts have a lot of supports to help that child (struggling in a subject),” she said. “Other districts don’t and when that’s the case, special ed is really the only game in town. So if you want a child to get more services you have to put them on an IEP.”

But this can cut both ways, with wealthier districts sometimes having more students with IEPs, because of greater parent advocacy and greater resources, according to Felicia Farron-Davis, an associate professor of education at Fitchburg State University.

“All I can say is follow the money,” she said.

In both Fitchburg and Leominster, Special Education made up 23.3 percent of the fiscal 2015 budget, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The state average was 21.1 percent.

In Leominster, the special education budget totaled $16.8 million. In Fitchburg, it was $13.4 million.

Students on IEPs cost districts more on a per-person basis than students in the general population, Pratt said. How much depends on what type of services the student is receiving.

Students placed in separate classrooms can cost the district an additional 30 percent annually whereas residential placement can cost as much as 20 times a single general education student.

Demanche said the district pays a half-million dollars each for a handful of students in the district because of soaring private school placement prices.

According to Pratt, state funding reimburses some of these costs, but “antiquated” funding equations mean the Leominster district still spends more on these students than those in the general population.

When district budget cuts come, such as proposed cuts in Leominster, these high costs could mean trouble, because IEPs are legal documents, according to Pratt.

“If we don’t do as we promise we do with the parent signature on that, parents can sue us,” he said. “They can sue us in many different forms.”

For students with disabilities, special education is a resource, but not the only one, according to Demanche.

Schools can refer students to outside counseling services, such LUK or Community Health Link, according Demanche. Behavorial Concepts Inc., which opened on Authority Drive last year, also provides services for children with autism.

Students’ needs don’t stop when they leave school, Howard said.

“Kids are only in school six hours a day, and they have needs 24 hours,” she said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @DobbinsSentinel.

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